Monday, October 29, 2007

Donuts anyone?

Sometimes, it really is better to be lucky than good.

That sentiment proved to be truth when New England Revolution faced off against their Eastern Conference counterparts on Saturday night. For their part, the Revs were offensively overmatched, and painfully lacked the creative flair that the Red Bulls so prominently showcased in front of the Giants Stadium faithful. Lucky for them that, for all of the Red Bull artistry, the home club failed to find the back of the net.

“Lucky” was certainly the operative word for the Revs Saturday night. New England was lucky to have an elite MLS keeper who stopped every laser and point blank shot fired in his direction. Lucky to have a questionable non-call go their way when it appeared Avery John had put one of his mitts on a Dane Richards ball inside the box during stoppage time. Lucky to leave to the Meadowlands with the series still dead even, despite the fact that the attack was essentially ex parte for much of the proceedings.

All luck aside, props must be given to the Red Bulls, who came out energized in the opening minutes, with Francis Doe, Dane Richards and Juan Pablo Angel starring as the offensive catalysts for Bruce Arena & Co. The speedy and elusive Doe dazzled the home crowd with electric moves straight out of the Anklebreakers textbook, giving the Revolution backs much to chew on in the first half.

Holding back a lethal front line of Angel and an emerging Doe was no simple task, and much of the credit must be given to Jay Heaps, Avery John, and Michael Parkhurst, not to mention Matt Reis, who literally saved his club from what appeared to be a sure deficit in this aggregate series.

But while the backline fought like a phalanx of battle-hardened centurions, it was the Revolution strikers who collectively dressed themselves as Jimmy Hoffa four nights prior to All Hallow’s Eve, as they appeared to the first leg of the playoff party conspicuously absent. They failed to match the Red Bulls’ firepower for much of the match, leaving the onus of keeping the score close squarely on the defenders. Although brief spurts of offense emerged near the hour mark, the fact that the first Revolution shot on goal didn’t occur until the 56th minute is quite telling of the club’s offensive ineptitude Saturday night.

Matters surely weren’t helped with Andy Dorman chained to the bench for the entire match, as the explosive Red Bull attack showed no signs of letting off the accelerator. Having recognized this, Nicol deferred to James Riley late, rather than Dorman, in order to preserve the match at nil-nil.

So where does this place the Revs come Saturday night? The defending valiantly proved its postseason mettle, and the shots that did get through were duly blocked – often in breathtaking fashion – by Reis, the consummate MLS playoff keeper. The club's leaders would be wise to allocate an extra playoff share or two for him in light of his all-world performance.

Defending aside, the Revolution must challenge the Red Bulls with far greater frequency – and potency – than they did over the weekend. Pat Noonan has eleven career goals against New York, and Taylor Twellman’s track record against their I-95 foes is also remarkable as well (10 goals). The attack was often unimaginative and stale, due in large part to a formation that puts Ralston in the middle rather than the right, where his remarkable crosses have been greatly missed. With him in the middle, the offense itself is often bland, as evidenced by five consecutive matches wherein the Revs have failed to simply muster more than two goals. Not coincidentally, the last time the Revolution overwhelmed their opponents was on September 15th against FC Dallas – a game in which Dorman started. The excuse that low-scoring affairs are characteristic of playoff soccer holds less water than a desert dam when two of the league’s best forward tandems reside in your starting eleven.

Nicol’s endeavor into the Ralston-in-the-middle-experiment has garnered less than lukewarm results. Quite simply, the Revolution skipper is not the man best suited for attacking mid slot that the exiled Dorman had performed so well in earlier this season. Of course, the dreaded “c” word lingers above the lanky mid – “consistency”, or in his case, lack thereof. To remedy this, Nicol must find a way to get his regular attacking midfielder back on track. How does he go about doing this? A start against a club that Dorman has enjoyed success against may just do the trick.

That being said, the Revolution need to come onto the pitch with all of its working pieces in place. Ralston on the right, Dorman in the middle, and Thompson coming off the bench should the need arise. Otherwise, an encore of last Saturday night may ensue come this Saturday at Gillette Stadium, where all of the weight of playoff drama may once again fall back onto the shoulders of Heaps, Parkhurst, John and Reis – all of whom may not be able to once again withstand another prolonged Red Bull assault.

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